“He used to … pull the scarfs of the Muslim girls as ‘a joke.’ One journalist hated it so much, she kept bottles of perfume and deodorant on her desk and used to spray it on his face to make him stop. We had to take this as a joke, but I never found it funny,” journalist and communications specialist Aisha Nazim told me. She was describing a serial sexual harasser, whom she did not identify. The unnamed sexual harasser and his friend, another perpetrator whose identity she only hinted at, also maintained a “butt meter” to rate the bodies of female journalists on a scale of 1-10, Nazim said.
Nazim’s work to catalog stories of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is a local offshoot of the global #MeToo movement. At the same time, the obstacles faced by Nazim and other women seeking to highlight the problem of sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, clearly highlight the limits of the moment in Sri Lanka.
In June 2021, Sarah Kellapatha noted that a male journalist had threatened to assault her at a publication in Colombo, Sri Lanka almost a decade earlier. While a lot of people supported her – including an American journalist named Jordana Narin who had been harassed by the same perpetrator – many people doubted her testimony.
Appalled at this and the experiences of other friends, Nazim compiled a thread that hinted at the identities of perpetrators and described the various forms of physical, sexual, and cyber violence they inflicted. What had previously been limited to quiet “whisper networks” was now published as a public directory for all to see.
Unlike in the United States, #MeToo has not led to accountability or “cancellation” in Sri Lanka. In both 2021 and earlier in 2019, none of the perpetrators or victims were specifically named. Nazim told me that she removed the names of perpetrators because of the authority these men have through their money, status, and connections: “Compared to these men, I am a ‘literal nobody.’ I do not have the time or the resources to protect myself,” she said. “Also, I am not just up against these men but their entire social circles too.”
Years have passed since the inception of the #MeToo movement and none of the perpetrators in Sri Lanka have faced any repercussions for their behavior.
Ex-Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka Ambika Sathkunathan described #MeToo in Sri Lanka as a “moment” that could have budded into a “movement” if the necessary labor had been poured into it. This labor has to be undertaken day-in and day-out if the movement is to be successful.
Aisha Nazim described the nature of relationships inside the media industry, based on her decade of experience: “Journalists generally are hired by the chief editor. There were no calls for applications. Editors headhunt a lot of journalists. They are all on first-name basis and have been around each other forever. Institutionally, the media industry is run by people that are friends,” she said. As a result, professional boundaries are blurred.
In a report published by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 16 percent of Sri Lankan journalists had experienced sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in their place of employment – all of them female.
Workplace harassment policies do exist, but these are rarely implemented. Based on her experience, Nazim described these as “tokenistic.” The IFJ report noted that 58 percent of females and 42 percent of males said that no formal complaint procedure existed in their place of employment. Only 12.5 percent of respondents said they had access to such procedures in their place of employment.
“The perpetrators have a circle of friends and people do not speak up about their friends. SGBV is enacted by men and perpetuated and upheld by men.” Nazim said.
“Foot Soldiers of the Patriarchy”
In her op-ed for The Wire, Ambika Satkunanathan noted the numerous “foot soldiers of the patriarchy”: women that either consciously or unconsciously help perpetuate the cycles of abuse initiated by men. Nazim noted the same phenomenon inside the media industry, where female journalists, currently industry leaders, had either played along or turned a blind eye to the incidents of sexual harassment that happened before them.
“Women, in these circles, had been [the perpetrator’s] friends, dated them or had just been around them. They did not really say anything even after an ‘incident.’ They just kept quiet about it,” Nazim said.
These female journalists benefited from their closeness and proximity to these men. These men shared their political contacts, news “scoops,” and details of industry experts. Their silence also helped these men continue their harassment undisturbed. At the same time, if these female journalists had been too loud or too rebellious, they could have been labelled as “crazy” and lost out on their careers. In retrospect, several of these journalists had contacted Nazim and expressed remorse about their past behavior.
The second type of “foot soldiers of the patriarchy” are family members and friends of perpetrators that defend them despite public accusations of abuse. These “foot soldiers” either call themselves feminists or benefit from feminist movements for equality. Satkunanathan noted that despite the enthusiasm of many people to label themselves as feminists in theory, they find it hard to do the real labor in practice: “Due to the nature of our society, practically every one of our homes is a patriarchal structure. We need to dismantle those structures everyday in our lives and the majority of people do not do this.”
“When a perpetrator is connected to someone, there is a feeling of discomfort. There are gradations. Some people are challenged [over their behavior] because they are not important. Other people are never challenged because people are scared of tension or scared about the end of the relationship. However, if this is not done, it’s really not going to work because it all starts in the private sphere—in the home,” she added.
She believes one of the reasons that people become “foot soldiers of the patriarchy” is because they are unable to navigate the domestic space, and more broadly society as a whole. She believes that these people should articulate the dichotomies they stand in, be honest about their internal conflict, and confide in someone else about it. This is a far better course than denying accusations and undermining the values these same “foot soldiers” champion and benefit from.
Member of Parliament and academic Dr. Harini Amarasuriya believes there are a variety of reasons “foot soldiers” choose to defend perpetrators and they should not be criticized for their decisions.
“A person experiences a process. These decisions are about human relationships full of emotions and all kinds of other ties that bind us together,” Amarasuriya said. “So breaking those or challenging those is harder than one thinks. Some people can and other people cannot do it as easily.”
Despite this, these “foot soldiers” cause so much harm, sometimes more than the perpetrators themselves. Perpetrators benefit from these relationships. In a close-knit community like Colombo, connections are a prerequisite to reap the opportunities needed to advance one’s career and personal life, particularly as these spheres are closely tied.
While accusations may often appear to be “out of character” to a family member or close friend of the perpetrator, a victim’s testimony should not be heartlessly dissected and diminished, their experiences and identity reduced to a cold mockery. A continued public defense of these perpetrators puts other people at risk, particularly those that are young and disadvantaged by class, race, sexuality, and (dis)ability. It helps perpetrators continue their crimes, shielded and defended.
One of the main criticisms of the #MeToo movement last year is the absence of voices from Sinhala and Tamil media and the overrepresentation of voices from English media. Nonetheless, the absence of these voices indicates an important element: The opportunity to say #MeToo is dictated by many factors and one of them is class.
Many of the survivors that said #MeToo came from an urban area, belonged to the middle class, and had received a university education. There are others, particularly from poor and rural contexts, that are unable to say #MeToo.
Last year, J. Ishalini, a 16-year-old employed as a maid at the palatial house of Member of Parliament Rishad Bathiudeen, died from burns. After her horrific death, it emerged that in her work there she had had to endure physical and sexual violence. She came from a poor, rural area of the country and identified as “Upcountry Tamil” – a descendant of South Indian laborers relocated to tea plantations in Sri Lanka under British rule. These people have been disproportionately impacted by the Citizenship Act of 1948, which removed their citizenship, their vote, and land.
Women from disadvantaged social classes, like Ishalini, do not “speak of violence for fear of fatal reprisals,” Satkunanathan noted in her op-ed.
Amarasuriya noted the limitations of the #MeToo movement in Sri Lanka and the importance of respect for those survivors that choose to stay silent: “There is a feeling that if you don’t come out and say ‘#MeToo’ you are protecting the perpetrator. But that’s not necessarily the case. Women make complex choices about ‘how,’ ‘where,’ and ‘why’ they talk about these things and we need to appreciate things that impact them and how they want to deal with it.”
Embassies and NGOs have reached out to Nazim to attempt to make sure that perpetrators are not receiving money for their projects and proposals. In retrospect, however, the #MeToo movement achieved very little.
A lot of institutions and companies have publicly expressed their support for the #MeToo movement and any policies and proposals to combat SGBV in the country. Nevertheless, these look like corporate lip-speak and are merely performative in tone. They are not indicative of any real institutional shake-ups that could make employees feel safe or secure – and, perhaps more importantly, heard, believed and supported.
The Sri Lankan judiciary, like so many around the world, favors perpetrators and not victims. There is only one act in the Penal Code about SGBV in places of employment: No. 22 of 1995. There are several reasons targets of sexual harassment or assault are hindered in seeking justice, including the failure to record complaints, the intimidation of survivors, the failure to initiate procedures, and prolonged court cases. As an example, amid the wave of discussion of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka’s media industry, the government washed its hands of the problems raised by the #MeToo movement and noted the need for a “formal complaint.”
Many of the sources I spoke to for this article believed that the state’s decision to step-back has been positive, however.
“I think putting this into the purview of the criminal justice system or the state is not necessarily a good thing. Those systems are already oppressive and you do not want to give them more power. They will often side with the perpetrators and those oppressed will become more oppressed,” said Satkunanathan.
In her essay “The Conspiracy Against Men,” Amia Sirinivasan asks: “If the aim is not merely to punish male sexual domination but to end it, feminism must address questions that many feminists would rather avoid: whether a carceral approach that systemically harms poor people and people of color can serve sexual justice…What does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?”
While the context differs in Sri Lanka, Sirinivasan makes an important point – incarceration of abusers is only a balm to the problem. What is the cure?
Satkunanathan has studied prisons and led the first ever national study of prisons in the country. She believes that prisons are not a viable solution to the problem of SGBV. Instead, she believes that everyone has a part to play, be it in families, communities, education, media and pop culture.
Similarly, Amarasuriya believes that change has to happen at all levels: national, provincial, local, NGOs, or CSOs. If institutions such as the judiciary and the executive are run by patriarchal and sexist men, she argues, then their decisions impact those institutions and trickle into people’s intimate lives too.
“If you have political leadership which is based on a very violent and patriarchal model then that is where we learn about leadership from. This has an impact on everything – even things which happen at the most intimate level. They are all connected.”
She also states there also needs to be a shift at another level, one that is deeper, more personal, and harder to shift: within individuals. “Sexual relations, changing gendered relations and challenging these stereotypes are some of the most complicated things to do because, essentially, it is about [our society’s] intimate and personal relationships. It’s about love, romance and sex – the most intimate and personal parts of ourselves. It’s about your value systems and moral systems. By moral, I mean, your thoughts and treatment of other people. They get very complicated.”
But for the #MeToo movement to truly succeed, in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, “There needs to be a shift at a very fundamental level – in ourselves.”